Surrender and Submission, pt 1: The Dark Night

Dante’s Inferno begins with the narrator lost in the middle of a dark wood. I’m right there with him. The manuscript for my historical novel has been on submission to agents for six months (or a year and a half, depending on how you’re counting) and the rejections are trickling in. Each time I get one, I tell myself, “Okay, not my agent. Next!” But really, I’m stabbed through the heart. The blood trickles for a few hours, staining everything I touch—my editing work, my phone calls, my time with my kids—and by nightfall, I’m a small animal keening and whimpering in my den. Keening and surrounded by mounds of chocolate, cheese and crackers, and sometimes a glass of wine to replenish the blood supply.

Why am I taking this so hard? It’s just a matter of fit. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes that pinched. You wouldn’t buy a dress that didn’t flatter you (even after you lost that pound or five you’ve been meaning to shed). You wouldn’t buy furniture that you couldn’t get into your house. And you wouldn’t pursue a mate who made it clear they just weren’t that into you. (And if you did—as some of us have—you know it ends badly.) You want the agent who loves your book, is crazy about your concept, and gets giddy at the thought of the readers you can transport together. So why do I have to pull a knife out of my chest every time an agent says “I’m not the one for you?”

Same reason I’ve ever pursued anything that clearly wasn’t for me. I really want this.

I’ve wanted to publish a novel since I wrote my first one at 16. That’s—ahem—going on 25 years ago now. I’ve been playing the “I will have a book by X” game for a decade. I thought I would publish the novel I wrote at 30 (and that it would be a bestseller, too, when that thing probably should never have seen the light of day). Book by 35? Yes! My dissertation won a prize and saw its way into print. Book by 40? Bingo! My book of short stories won a prize and came out last year from a brilliant small press. This year, a book of medieval essays I co-edited was published by a top-notch medieval publisher. Several short stories and a creative nonfiction essay came out this year, and a sonnet I wrote won a prize. I have more publications than I can remember to add to the CV. I am extraordinarily, absurdly, disgustingly charmed and lucky.

And yet. I lose sleep at night fearing I will die before I publish a novel, before I will achieve that One Dream I’ve wanted more than anything—more than I want to climb the pyramids at Giza, more than I want social justice, more than I want to cure climate change. (Well, okay, I want all of those things and to publish a novel.) Of course, once I have published a novel, I want to publish more of them. Strings of novels. Schools of novels. But this one hurdle, this one desire—the Debut—I keep throwing myself at it, and I keep crashing down, just like ninth-grade track practice.

Misty, I hear you saying. Seriously. If it means that much to you, self-publish. The publishing scene has changed since you got your MFA. Self-published books can be good now. If you’ve done the work and you think the book is in good enough shape to send out to an agent, then consider whether it’s good enough to self-publish.

I have. And I haven’t crossed self-publishing off the list of options. It’s there, down the road, one of a handful of possible destinations for this novel. But I wanted to try the traditional route first, and not just because of the MFA, not just because I was trained as a literary writer (it’s not a literary novel, after all), and not just because there is still more industry cred if someone else besides you puts out your book.

I want someone else to tell me I’m good enough. Someone whose opinion results in my getting a book deal.

I also, let’s face it, want a team. I want to do just the writing part and have someone else pass me a cover design to vet and a marketing plan to follow and a contract to read and sign. Though I understand the realities of marketing in the world today, I long for the fantasy of that traditional arrangement where I just hand over the manuscripts and my agent sends me the edits, then the galleys, and then the checks. When you self-publish, you have to hustle. You have to be an authorpreneur. You have to have a brand and a following and a presence and a professional-looking website and my throat is closing up at the very thought of all that it takes to be a successful indie author.

But most of all, when I pull the knife out of the heart and examine it, I recognize the magical thinking: if the book is good, then I am good. Readers, yes, I hope that at the end of all this, lots and lots of readers will love the book as much as I do. That’s everyone’s hope, in some version. But the agent and publisher rejection strikes me right at the heart of that unloveable, not-good-enough, will-never-be-good-enough wound that I’ve carried around for as long as I can remember. Every time an agent says “thanks, but not for me,” they’re whispering, “it’s not really good.” “Liked it, didn’t love it” means “you don’t really have what it takes.” “Didn’t connect with the concept/characters” translates to “honestly, I can’t see anything here, and why did you waste your time on this, again?” And the dead, static-filled silence of no response at allmeans: you’re simply not good enough.

And may never be. Until I get The Call. Until I get the gatekeeper’s go-ahead, the professional’s confirmation that yes, this is a book I can fall in love with, this is a project I can get behind, this book belongs on the shelves and in readers’ hands and their suitcases and their mom’s hands and their lover’s nightstand after they’re done. I crave that validation.

I may not ever get it. And I have to learn how to deal with that. Because honestly, I need the sleep.

I’ve put this book through ten drafts, several editors, two agent workshops, a novel seminar, and a paid evaluation by a bestselling author. Right now, it’s as good as I know how to make it. I could revise it yet again, turn it into another book entirely, but I really don’t want to. As I read back through the manuscript before sending out those first chapters yet again, I find myself caught up and going far beyond the first fifty pages. I want to plunge through the whole book, take that journey with my characters all over again, laughing and crying and cheering them on. I’m more in love with this novel than ever. I adore my bookish, eccentric, stubborn heroine and the way she is passionate about insoluble math problems. I feel even more strongly, in the face of all this rejection, that we need more stories about brave girls in history who went against the accepted thinking of their time.

I love this book. I believe in it. So that is why I’m compiling yet another hit list and agents and publishers, and finally joining QueryTracker—acknowledgement that I’m in this for the long haul, and it may be very, very long. But I also need something to keep me going along the way—the words that I can carry with me on this soul-searching, deeply testing journey. Not Dante’s “Abandon all hope,” thanks, but something that will help me keep faith as I toil through the Slough of Despond and the Pits of Despair.

Dear reader, tell me what advice you have. Give me that small, unquenchable talisman to light up the darkness. Send me the magic feather that will carry me through. I’m developing my own thoughts about how to surrender this process—the subject of future post, perhaps—but right now, I want to hear yours.

The life of the independent scholar

With the publication of Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (hurray and huzzah! she’s here!) and the acceptance of a paper for the book at the Illinois Medieval Association meeting in February 2018, I’m feeling more like an independent scholar again. It’s good to feel like a scholar at all again—I’ve missed it.

Independent scholars are what we call ourselves when we research, publish, and conference for fun rather than under the aegis of a college or university. I admit that, as a graduate student depending on the prospect of getting a tenure-track job somewhere, I worried that the “independent scholar” label was less legit than a university affiliation. If you loved the work and were good at it, why wouldn’t someone hire you and pay you to work? I admit I was both naive and a snob—a naive snob.

Yes, this is a melusine. Look familiar?

After 2008 and the Great Recession, the shrinking of the American university and the enormous competition for academic jobs of any sort, not just tenure-track, the title “independent scholar” seems to have lost that misfit odor. Like self-publishing your book, there are ways to do it professionally and right, not only keeping the same standards as the gatekeepers but in some cases filling a need that the traditional venues don’t fill.

For instance, while medievalism has in the past few years been a very hot topic of study, and investigating the modern (re)appropriation of medieval culture in everything from film and TV to white supremacist blogs is more timely still, I get to do things like examine modern re-inventions of Melusine and feel like my research fits right in. From Maleficent to the Starbucks siren, to the novels of Philippa Gregory and the villainesses of the graphic arts, Melusine is snaking her mermaid-tail and snaky wings more and more prominently into the cultural imagination.

I have an academic affiliation again, and am grateful for it; I get to hone and refine my teaching skills on a new batch of students each semester, and in the spring, my work at the Success Center at Muscatine Community College will keep me engaged and learning. But, like the part of me that is a novelist and short-story writer and now an essayist as well, I still feel like my scholarship, research and publication, is independent of what MCC needs of me. I do it for fun, because I have questions I want to answer, ideas I want to propose, ways of reading I want to suggest to other people.

A more modern version of Melusine

I’ve always straddled a strange line, from graduate school through my wonderful, much-loved gig as assistant professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College: I’m a creative writer and a scholar, a researcher and a writer. And a teacher, too; that’s three parts of the brain I have to be using, three areas I need to be skilled in. Then there’s the editing I’ve been doing since grad school as a kind of side gig and, at the same time, an extension of one of my favorite aspects of teaching: using what I know as a writer to help other people write well. So there’s a fourth part, or perhaps an overlap. There must be some way my identities work all together, and one day I’ll sit down and draw that map. It might help me better manage my time.

I’ll need it, because aside from the practical drawback that independent scholarship doesn’t pay the way an academic salary does, the other drawback to straddling disciplines is the to-do list. Here’s a glance at mine for the holiday break, now that grades are filed and work at the Writing Center is wrapped up:

  • Write the conference paper
  • Review the books (currently, I have 3 to finish, for 3 different places)
  • Edit the manuscript I’ve been contracted to do
  • Research for the novel I’m writing (1792 England)
  • Keep querying and sending out the novel I finished (with my mathematical heroine, Thomasine; astonishingly, no one has yet jumped at the chance to publish that book, so I’m still shopping her with high hopes)
  • Put together a proposal for the third collection of short stories
  • Submit the various stories that haven’t found a home yet. Consider writing more
  • Write the novella I said I’d write
  • Join the societies I told myself I’d join
  • Redo the author website (way overdue)

And, at some point, I need to organize this chaotic office. If messiness is a sign of genius, I’m all set.

That’s my holiday break, and I can’t wait to tackle this list. It’s all part of the work I love and am so grateful that I get to do. Hope your holiday break is just as full of all your favorite things.

Misty’s messy office

The Pleasures of Flash Fiction

I’ve had luck with placing very short pieces lately. Fiction Attic accepted a flash fiction piece, “River Bottom,” the day after I submitted it, and it appeared on the site one day later. The Cerurove included my piece “Happiness” in their inaugural issue, just released. My 300-word story incorporating a line from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ranked in this year’s short fiction contest hosted by the River Cities’ Reader, and draft: the journal of process posted a literary collage I wrote as an exercise in a workshop this summer at the David R. Collins Writing Conference. A somewhat longer story, “Ficus,” at 1400 words, was accepted for publication in District Lit. All of these were picked up on their very first submission, which always feels gratifying and serendipitous, hitting the sweet spot (one hopes) of a perfect confluence among editor and journal and reader and story and me.

In contrast, my long-form fiction hasn’t been as lucky. Two stories I’ve been sending out for years, “Ask” and “The Day of the Beheaded Barbie,” keep coming back to me. Sometimes they come back with encouraging rejections. That soothes the sting a bit—like the adult child offering to pay rent when she moves back in with you. You appreciate the gesture, and the rent will help, but really, the idea was that she would strike out on her own into a world that would embrace her, her own two feet firmly beneath her, going on with your love and blessing to be an independent organism now.

A very long, almost novella-length story that I’ve been sending out for some time was accepted for print in an anthology—but they only wanted or had room for 4 pages of the 30-page whole. (The excerpt is from “Bay City” and it appears, alongside an astonishing piece of art, in Domestic, available now from Willow Press.)

As we know, my collection THE NECESSARIES did not move forward for consideration for the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, though the brief period when it was on the long list was very thrilling. My novel THE LIGHTED HEART has not yet been snapped up by an agent or publisher who has fallen in love and must possess it immediately. (I remain hopeful that this will yet be its fate.) But as I work on the next novel for NaNoWriMo, and watch—gratefully, I must say—the short fiction pop into print while the long fiction circles and circles, dragging like a drowned worm, I do wonder what might be going right with the short-short fiction that the rest of my stories can learn from.

I have some guesses.

  • Compression adds tension. When the words are limited, there can be nothing superfluous. Everything there must help tell the story, and through several means at once: sound, symbolism, meaning, and action. Perhaps this tight condensing pulls the reader in more quickly and pops her gasping for air—the kind of reading experience we want to have as readers, and want to give our readers when we write.
  • Like a joke, flash fiction demands you get in and get out. You simply outrun the reader’s attention span. You don’t wander away from a two-minute anecdote at the cocktail party; you might be gathering your munchie and drink, but by the time you’re sorted, it’s over. And you can move on to the next.
  • Small things are adorable. Like babies, kittens, and just-born turtles: we see something that small, and we’re irresistibly drawn to it.
  • The structure compels. Along with the compression comes speed; once you’re drawn in, things move quickly from beginning to middle to end. Or maybe:
  • We read flash fiction more like an image than a narrative. Here’s the theory that feels most compelling to me at the moment. Short short pieces rarely tell a complete narrative. Think of the unwearyingly clever six-word story. You could argue there is causality, character, movement, consequence, but you have to argue hard and be very imaginative. Think about Hemingway’s famous example: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” That’s a solid sock of feeling that invites you, the reader, to supply the narrative, which you do. What the piece offers, rather, is an image, a sensation, fully formed, and you shade in the subtext and meaning.

In our media-saturated and image-driven culture, in which we are trained to think fast and  sequentially, and decipher images quickly and subconsciously—like making decisions while driving a car—perhaps flash fiction corresponds more easily to that mode of thought, and that’s why readers are drawn to it. It puts a slightly different interpretive demand on us than do longer works, which are more linearly structured and both more and less subtle.

I’m not predicting the end of long-form fiction, especially not now that we have ebooks, and we don’t have to pay for our page lengths. But it asks something else of us. And I wonder now if, in my own case, my longer stories and novels are asking—and offering—the right things.

Here are some thoughts from other writers on short fiction as a form. Now go write!

Book Bums Nov. 4

Join a roster of terrific authors, marketing pros, and independent publishers at the 4th Annual Book Bums Writer’s Workshop to be held Saturday, November 4 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at West Liberty Public Library in West Liberty, IA. I’ve been part of this event as panelist and attendee, and this year I’m contributing to two panels, one on revising and another on preparing materials for submission, a process I’m smack in the middle of. Find the bios of participating pros and a schedule of events here. The best writing advice around, and it’s all free.

Go, litel book

“Go, litel book,” Chaucer writes at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, and sends his work off into the world in hopes that it will be read, understood, and well-received, will communicate his intentions and be forgiven his failures. This is a common trope in medieval writing, expressing both the particular Western European convention that works of literature need to educate and instruct even as they entertain, and addressing what might be a universal authorial anxiety that, once our words are loose in the world, we have no more control over them. They belong, once they leave our hands, to the reader.

I got curious about where A LESSON IN MANNERS has traveled by now, roughly 18 months after publication. So I strolled over to WorldCat to do the nerd’s version of Googling yourself, which is using WorldCat to see which libraries have your book. I was pleasantly surprised by the number: 14.

Fourteen libraries have my book, and only three of those were copies I donated. (Which seems somewhat miserly of me now—surely I could share a bit more widely?) Muscatine Community College and Musser Public Library have copies; so do Bettendorf and Moline. The University of Iowa libraries, gratifyingly, catalogued the copy I gave them.

The South Central library system of Wisconsin has my book, which I suspect is where the copy migrated that I donated to my hometown library, Macmillan, in advance of an author program there. All the better; now my book can travel all over south central Wisconsin at the command of a button. Maybe when I’m very famous, my hometown will want that copy back to keep.

The other entries were more wondrous. Valdosta University has a copy (perhaps donated by my Valdosta-based publisher, or doing their part to support the local literary arts). So does the University of Georgia (possibly a purchase request by my friend who is a professor there?). Johns Hopkins has a copy. Well! The University of Cincinnati has a copy; so does the University of California at Riverside. Better and better! Columbia University has my book; the New York Public Library has my book.

The New York Public Library has my book! I’m starting to feel very plumped up about myself. No, 14 is not a huge number, but these are very respectable places. My little book has made its way all the way to New York City.

 

New York Public Library. Photo by NYC Urban Sketchers

Then, in conversation, a fellow medieval scholar who lives and teaches in Istanbul mentioned she read my book of medieval scholarship, MONSTROUS WOMEN IN MIDDLE ENGLISH ROMANCE, through the British Library. Did my head swell up then! The British Library has my book? The British Library has my book! (Repeats to herself in fake British accent.)

How wonderful. My book lives in the same library system as the manuscript upon which much of my Melusine scholarship is based. This is MS Royal 18 B.ii, and I am the proud owner of an electronic copy of this manuscript, which the Library issued to me for a reasonable fee.

Then I thought to look up the book in WorldCat, and imagine my astonishment when I saw this number: 673 holdings for all 8 editions.

673 holdings! (Has mild heart attack.) Eight editions! How did we get to 8 editions? How did we get to 673 holdings? Did my publisher send out 670 free review copies?

I compared listings to a somewhat similar book I read for my recent article on Melusine, forthcoming in a book of essays from Brill. 124 listings. A more recent book, but from a more established and bigger academic press. I looked back at a book I read and learned much from during the days of writing my dissertation. That was published in 2003 and has 724 holdings.

I looked at the libraries. Swaths of local academic libraries have my book, among them many, many community colleges. The book has made its way to all corners of the U.S. (HOW did that happen? Did my publisher hold a fire sale?)

But I was more staggered by the number of international listings. My book is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Nigeria. My book is in China. My book is in Singapore and Hong Kong. My book is in the Virgin Islands. My book is all over Australia. It is at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. It is in the American University in Armenia and the Open University of Cyprus. There are a ton of copies in Turkey. Somehow, not just these regional or national but international libraries have determined that among the resources they want to make available to their students is my tiny, silly, monstrous little book.

I am overwhelmed, honored, and worried about this. Somehow, as far as library holdings go, MONSTROUS WOMEN elbowed its purple way onto the shelf next to the works of prominent scholars whose work I am inspired by and deeply admire. I wonder how my monstrous women could have such chutzpah. I am astonished and a bit panicked. The book isn’t any good! There are so many errors in it! I was such a young scholar then—I could do so much better now! (Could I?)

On the other hand, I did the best I could at the time. I had an excellent, top-notch dissertation advisory committee who approved the book as a contribution to my field. The Edwin Mellen Press awarded my book the D. Simon Evans Dissertation Prize for Medieval Studies, which is how they happened to publish it. Several of the contributors to the upcoming Brill volume referenced my work, which made me squirm when I edited their chapters. (They read my book! Oh, what must they think of me?) While with fiction, the greatest charge and onus is to delight and instruct, the sincerest form of flattery in scholarship is to appear in somebody else’s footnote.

While I’m not sure the book deserves such a global presence, and can’t help being flattered that it does, I have also been reminded by this that my imposter syndrome is still running on full throttle. So be it. Imposter syndrome can be a huge motivator. It prompts me to dig deeper, work harder, hold myself to the highest standards. I’ll probably never really feel like I deserve any of the honors that have been heaped upon me; those are simply the acts of generosity of readers, and to be recognized, needed, cherished, or connected to by readers is awe-inspiring, gratifying, and deeply, deeply humbling.

My fall lessons so far have been all about humility. This is just another to teach me to be quiet, listen hard, and do the best work I can telling the truth as I see it. I hope I remember that.

But also, in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and I’m worried about why am I here/what am I doing/why do I think I need to be a writer when there are so many real ills in the world that need solving, I might sneak online to WorldCat and look at whisper to myself in the still reaches of the night, “The American Farm School in Thessaloniki has my book.” And that’s something.

American Farm School in Greece. Photo by Hellenic News of America.

Statue of St. Scholastica

Filling the Well: Some Thoughts on Retreat

At the beginning of the month, I had the glorious opportunity to spend a full week at the Benet House, the retreat center on the grounds of the St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, Illinois. This was a gift granted me by the Midwest Writing Center in the form of the Great River Writer Retreat, an annual honor supported by a generous local donor and awarded to a writer selected from a four-state-wide applicant pool. If you live in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, you really should think about applying next summer, because there couldn’t be a more beautiful place to spend a week writing. The Benedictine Sisters are gentle and hospitable and kind, the grounds are beautiful and well-tended, the retreat center is quiet, and the calm of being in such a sacred place, even if you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, is the equivalent of mainlining creative energy.

I hugely overpacked for my stay, overestimating as always how much I can actually get done in a day. There was the bag of books I imagined I’d read. There were bags and bags of snacks I imagined I’d be eating. There were the yoga pants for the writing portion of the day; something decent to wear when I emerged for meals at the monastery; an outfit for the reading I would give on Wednesday of that week; and then there was the exercise gear, because I imagined that I would be rigorous with all of these acres of time and would go to bed early, rise with the sun, exercise, eat abstemiously, and take long walks to commune with the beauty of the natural setting around me.

I arrived on Saturday and spent the day just journaling, getting everything else out of my head. I spent the day Sunday reading through what I’d already written of the novel (date last modified: four and a half years ago, right before my son was born), taking a run, and gearing up for my week of balanced, harmonious, healthy creation.

Here’s what happened instead: I went on a creative bender. I descended, utterly, and entirely, into a kind of sloth-like state in which I had one focus of attention, and one only: what was happening in the novel. I would look at the clock and realize I was already five minutes late for a meal and run over, notebook in hand, to scribble notes while I hastily shoved food in my mouth. I don’t know what time I went to bed because I had taken the battery out of the clock in my room. (I hate the sound of passing time.) When I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, I turned on the light and began working. When I woke up in the morning, I rolled out of bed, put on a new set of yoga pants, and worked until I realized I had maybe ten minutes to shower and get to the cafeteria, or I would be cooking my own lunch, and that would just be time away from my writing that I did not want to lose.

It felt WONDERFUL.

It was also, in the end, unsustainable. I recall an episode in graduate school when I went on a three-day bender in which I wrote the first draft of an entire novel. It was fortunate I didn’t have class. I opened every can in my cupboard. I let every call go to voicemail. I might have worn the same clothes three days in a row. My only human contact was with the utility company when I realized there was a problem with my stove and they sent a technician over. As he entered my house, stepping over the pile of mail before the door, wearing the safety goggles and hard hat and protective gear, I wanted to laugh: he needed a hazmat suit to enter my house, but not because of the stove.

I had the same experience on my retreat. When I emerged for the reading on Wednesday night, I felt a little bit like I had come out of hibernation. I felt that the world might be too rough on my raw creativity nerve, now so close to the surface.

The reading was fine, and on Friday, when I had to transition from my own writing to workshopping others’ writing, I did fine also. I hadn’t forgotten how to interact with people. I was able to tear myself away from the computer without resentment that I had to return to my real life. But I also realized that, the opposite of what I’d expected, I had not written myself into exhaustion. I felt like I could go straight down the rabbit hole again, and stay there. There was no sign of that creative vein being diminished, no sense that the full-open-faucet setting might eventually drain it. The more I drew from the well, the fuller I found it.

That was a wonderful realization, too.

Coming back from the retreat, I’ve been having a hard time finding my balance again. There was much to catch up on, clients to get back with, student work to read, deadlines to meet. Everything I’d put off to go on retreat had multiplied. But I have pages and pages more on the novel, thousands of words that came pouring out. And I can feel how that well is still full, brimming, waiting for me to come tap from it again. The retreat was a golden week of creative bliss and naturally I can’t wait until the next time I get another like it. But now, the work is to figure out how to keep that well close at hand—keep it full, keep it flowing—and be able to sip from it as often as time in the busy schedule allows.